Budapest’s coffeehouse culture is long renowned for cultivating distinguished artists by providing cozy havens for creative Hungarians to eat, drink, work, and play. In decades past, several cafés and restaurants served as a second home (and office) for some of the city’s most prominent authors, poets, and journalists, and while many of these hospitable meeting points are now lost to history, a few of them survive after all these years with their artful ambience preserved for posterity, honoring the great wordsmiths that once patronized these places as part of their daily routine.
Centrál Kávéház & Étterem
Once upon a time, this huge downtown café served as the nexus for Budapest’s literary luminaries. During the early 20th century, Centrál was the primary conclave for the editorial team of Nyugat, the most influential literary journal of Hungarian history – regular contributors that were frequently found here included groundbreaking poet Endre Ady, evocative prose-writer Dezső Kosztolányi, and social-realist novelist Móricz Zsigmond. Among other noteworthy Centrál patrons, prominent authors Géza Gárdonyi (Eclipse of the Crescent Moon) and Ferenc Molnár (The Paul Street Boys) are still reverently read today – and after the café’s extensive renovation in recent months, all of these writers and many more are memorialized with portraits decorating the classic ambience.
For over a century now, Déryné is a treasured bistro for locals in Buda’s surrounding Krisztinaváros neighborhood behind Castle Hill – and this included globally renowned Hungarian author Sándor Márai, until his home around the corner was destroyed during World War II. Before then, Márai enjoyed relaxing and working at Déryné’s terrace tables, appreciating that during sunny afternoons the Krisztina Square church steeple across the street provided perfect shade for writing alfresco; it is quite likely that this was a site where Márai penned drafts of his masterpiece, Embers. These days Déryné still welcomes writers to hang out here and scribble passages for future literary opuses, although this place is now so popular that it can be difficult to find an unoccupied table to write on.
Masterful Magyar man of letters Frigyes Karinthy made many contributions to Hungarian literature that remain beloved to this day – from his humorous short stories of schoolboy life to his autobiographical novel A Journey Round My Skull (detailing his own brain-tumor operation) to his fanciful translation of A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh – and for many years he held court almost daily at Hadik, attracting countless fans and fellow writers seeking to share his gregarious company. After being closed for seven decades, this old-world café on one of Buda’s primary boulevards was revived with grand style in 2010, with a mural portraying Karinthy and some of the other significant wordsmiths who frequented Hadik, including Dezső Kosztolányi and Móricz Zsigmond.
Passionate women and flavorful feasts were omnipresent motifs in the vividly expressive works of bibulous writer Gyula Krúdy, and he regularly savored them both at Óbuda’s Kéhli restaurant, located just a short stagger away from his former home (now housing the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism). Krúdy’s most famous character, the silver-tongued bon vivant Sindbad, drifts through his life and memories in an ethereal quest to delight in every appealing damsel and dish that he would encounter – and in appreciation of the author’s devotion to his favored neighborhood eatery, Kéhli’s menu still features several of the customary Hungarian meals that Sindbad devoured with zestful gusto, while the walls are graced with some of Krúdy’s enchantingly eloquent quotes.
New York Café
Known as the “most beautiful café in the world”, this landmark eatery is more than just a pretty space – here many of Hungary’s renowned writers were often observed putting pen to paper during the belle-époque era. Legend has it that on the New York Café’s opening day in 1894, Ferenc Molnár and his journalist friends took the restaurant’s keys and tossed them into the Danube in hopes that this would force management to keep the doors open 24 hours a day. Later this became another clubhouse for the Nyugat crew, and Géza Gárdonyi, Frigyes Karinthy, and Gyula Krúdy all spent time here as well. Following its complete refurbishment a decade ago, the ornate New York Café now looks almost exactly as it appeared when the esteemed literary crowd looked to the frescoed ceilings for inspiration.